custom

Helmet’s Page Hamilton Rig Rundown [2024]
Rig Rundown: Helmet's Page Hamilton [2024]

Loyal, longstanding partnerships with ESP, DiMarzio, and Fryette have forged a foundational triumvirate of tone helping the underground alt-metal titan construct Meantime and Betty, tour in David Bowie’s band, and contribute to film scores for Heat and Catwoman.

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Some of the cosmetic aspects you’ll need to determine for your custom instrument.


This guitar’s Indian rosewood binding contrasts nicely against its Australian-blackwood back and sides.

In the first two parts of this series, we covered the basics on how to get started ordering a custom guitar, as well as some of the construction details you’ll be deciding on in the process. This month, let’s talk about some of the cosmetic aspects you’ll need to determine for your custom instrument.

Bindings
As with most parts of the custom-guitar design process, we could go on for days about binding possibilities, but I will try and stick to the ones that we get into most often. While we do a lot of wood bindings because we prefer that look, we also do plastic bindings as well. One thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t expect to hear a difference in the tone between the two options: The choice is strictly cosmetic.

Wood Bindings
The options here are almost endless, but we usually do our wood bindings with maple, Indian rosewood, or koa. We’ll also use cocobolo or ebony occasionally. The biggest decision here comes down to how the color and figure of the bindings contrast with the color and figure of the back and side woods. You may like a lot of contrast, such as maple against rosewood, or you may like the almost-unbound look of rosewood on rosewood, with maybe just a set of black/white/black lines in-between.

You can find plenty of images on the internet to give you an idea of the different options for your guitar, so be sure to research as many as possible before deciding. Do be aware, however, that wood colors and grains vary, so you may not get exactly the same color and figure in your wood bindings that you saw in another example. As with all details, trust the input of your guitar builder on these things. We’ve done it many times before, so we know what works, and what doesn’t.

Plastic Bindings
Often, and mostly for the sake of tradition, we use various plastic bindings. These are usually ivoroid, white plastic, black plastic, or tortoise-colored plastic. If you are ordering a tradition-based model, I would recommend that you stick with whatever your grandpa’s guitar had for binding. You might like the idea of tortoise binding on your D-28-styled guitar at first, but later on—especially if you ever want to sell it—you may end up wishing that you had chosen traditional ivoroid or white plastic instead.

Purfling Schemes
There are just as many purfling options as there are binding options, but we usually see one of just a few. Those include black/white/black fiber lines, herringbone, rope style, or abalone. Abalone top trim is something that has gone a bit out of style, but is still a real jaw-dropper when you see it. It will move most instruments into a showier context, and certainly also costs quite a bit more. Herringbone is often a good choice, even on an instrument that you would normally not see herringbone. If you add herringbone to a mahogany guitar, for example, you can add flair to the look, without giving it a design scheme that’s a bit too weird. It will look traditional, but with a different touch.

Finishes
We do several top colors other than natural, including a lot of sunbursts. And we offer two basic sunbursts: our three-color (aka standard) and two-color sunburst. The two-color sunburst is reddish brown on the outside edge, whereas our standard burst is black on the outside edge. Every builder has their own, and most will gladly send you pictures. It’s worth noting that sunbursts are not only notoriously difficult to photograph—it’s very hard to do two that are exactly alike. So allow your builder some license here. I’ve been doing sunbursts for 19 years now and I’ve hardly ever done two that are exactly the same. When you embrace that concept, a sunburst can be a unique way to distinguish your guitar from a similar style.

We also do aging toner top-finish once in a while. You can add just a bit of a yellowing agent with the first coat of the top’s finish to give it an antiqued look. This looks best when done on very traditional-designed guitar.

As for staining the back, sides, and neck, I do recommend that you stain mahogany, especially with the lighter-colored mahoganies that we use today. They can be very pale and sometimes an unattractive pinkish color when not stained. The exception here would be mahoganies that have quite a bit of ribbon figure. They often have a darker color than normal, and will display a striking luminescence when left unstained.

Remember that these rough guidelines are influenced by personal tastes, so get with your builder and flesh out your own ideas on these things. If you’re just the right amount creative while remaining open-minded and respectful of the opinions of those with experience, you will end up with a beautiful and unique instrument.

Next time, we’ll cover inlays and move on to pickup and set-up choices.

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LEFT: For an instrument to be boutique, it should be in some way personal. MIDDLE: Mike Sabre builds basses with passion. This is his new Dominique Di Piazza Signature


LEFT: For an instrument to be boutique, it should be in some way personal. MIDDLE: Mike Sabre builds basses with passion. This is his new Dominique Di Piazza Signature Model. Photo courtesy of mike-sabre. com RIGHT: Looking at Bas Wittenberg’s 1-string doubleneck, it’s hard not to smile and immediately feel the fun he had building it. It’s unique and dead-on target! Photo courtesy of bas-extravaganza.nl

Reading PG’s “Staff Picks” in the January 2013 issue, I stopped and pondered the question of the month: “What’s your favorite bass line of all time?” It seems like a simple question, but the moment I tried to answer it, I hit a wall, ricocheting through different decades of my musical passions and life while pondering the many people I’ve played with and all those who’ve inspired me.

Because I couldn’t come up with a short answer, I thought I’d tackle a simpler question: “What’s my favorite bass of all time?” It took me half an hour to name the 10 models that have impressed me most, and I’m still unable to reduce the list to one or two. In fact, rarely did I think any of these was perfect for me, as each bass had its benefits and drawbacks.

Perhaps you’ve reached a similar conclusion. This realization drives some bassists to start building their own “perfect” vision of a bass (and maybe make it a business). Others are motivated to look for a luthier who can fulfill their dream.

In the “early days,” potential bass customers drooled over the gear their heroes played, yet most often ended up with an instrument from the limited selection at the local shop. Though the choice was narrow, you were always able to touch and hear an instrument before you took it home.

At the time you read this, odds are you’ve already cruised through pages of printed reviews, articles, and ads, or an equivalent amount of material online. The number of bass models and makers has increased so much that no one knows them all. And today, “knowing” means seeing pictures and maybe getting an audio sample. Many instruments are simply not available for you to demo in person. So how can you find your dream machine?

If you’re a regular reader, you know PG focuses on high-end gear for the huge custom and boutique market. The truth is, this really isn’t a “market,” so we can skip all those “check your budget” and “ask yourself this or that” kinds of questions you find in a typical buyer’s guide. It’s difficult to draw a line between “custom” and “boutique,” as the distinction isn’t entirely clear.

For example, nowadays all of the bigger brands carry a custom line where instruments can be built to order by choosing some special finishes, a couple of options, or simply get a famous name on the headstock. The focus is on distinctive visual elements, but fundamentally these are still series instruments that simply bear the custom tag.

So, as an experienced player with some particular needs, you might turn to boutique builders for your instrument. But are boutique instruments really any different or just pricier?

The French word boutique originally just meant a small store, but it was later used for little shops—often linked to fashion— run by very specialized experts. In our world, boutique can be described as a low-volume production of high-end customizable instruments that are individually tailored for a specific client.

The definition is not as clear as it sounds because for some, putting a grade AAA+ top on a Jazz-bass clone qualifies it as a boutique instrument. Another story goes that a luthier was once given around $20,000 to make a beautiful, exclusive bass. He took his regular $6,000 model and added a diamond worth $14,000. The result might be a nice collectors’ item, but is a lost investment for the bass world. Because of the price, everyone would call it “boutique,” but I’d lean toward “custom.”

For an instrument to be boutique, it should be in some way personal, whether it’s in the string-spacing, shape, choice of hardware, or even where you want your volume knob. Boutique is the personal business, which often means pricey, but not necessarily so. It’s a concept that ideally offers some individual, unique selling point, where as a buyer you get part of a philosophy and passion.

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